Underage drinking

Law enforcement agencies in Moffat County share an appreciation for the problem of underage drinking, but they don't share a philosophy about how to deal with it.

When Craig police encounter a minor in possession of alcohol, officers issue a ticket for the Class 2 petty offense. It is a summons to appear in court, and it carries penalties that include possible fines, community service and alcohol education courses.

The Moffat County Sheriff's office deals with the encounters differently. On the first offense, deputies warn the offending minor, call his or her parents and arrange transportation home. It amounts to a verbal warning.

"It's our way of having some built-in latitude," said Sheriff Buddy Grinstead. "A lot of times when someone enters the judicial system, they're trapped there forever."

Undersheriff Jerry Hoberg said a minor's first ticket usually amounts to a warning anyway because the charge may be deferred in court. Responding to criticism about the sheriff's policy, Hoberg asks if it's a matter of "who's doing the warning." And, he adds, "it's a one-shot deal." There are no second warnings.

Hoberg said it's an opportunity for parents to take the matter into their hands, to become aware of the behavior and to address it.

K.C. Hume, the sheriff's chief investigator, said he believes parents can affect a change in the minor's behavior.

"A lot of parents today are able to address those issues. If parents are able to handle it and the child isn't dumped into the judicial system, it's a benefit for the parents, it's a benefit for the child and it's a benefit for us. But, again, it's one time," Hume said.

The next encounter won't be as lenient.

"If it happens again, obviously what mom and dad said didn't sink in," Hoberg said.

Craig police look at the incidents differently.

"We have a little different philosophy," said Chief Walt Vanatta. "Because of the sometimes disastrous and deadly results that occur when young people drink, we issue citations on the first offense to get them into the system," Vanatta said.

Most police contacts with minors who've been drinking are second or third violations, Vanatta said.

"We'd rather get them into the system and get them help," Vanatta said.

The chief said it provides more leverage and motivation for the young drinkers to straighten up.

Also, it's a matter of consistency. In the past, police were criticized for inconsistently applying such policies. When discretion is left up to officers, it leaves room for parents to say, "This person's child got a warning and mine didn't. How come?" Vanatta said.

Vanatta prefers to let the District Attorney's office "meter out what is appropriate."

Both the sheriff's office and the police department agree that the underlying problem is that minors have access to alcohol.

"We need to stop people buying alcohol for underage drinkers," Hoberg said. But he said it's "very difficult" to stop.

Last spring, police officers and sheriff's deputies conducted stings in which minors attempted to buy alcohol. Bars and stores that sold packaged liquor, as opposed to restaurants, passed the tests admirably.

It is not a case of liquor stores selling to minors, said Cindy Biskup, director of Grand Futures Prevention Coalition.

"All of those (bars and liquor stores) are very good about checking IDs," Biskup said. "Alcohol is being provided by parents and other people over age 21.

"From my standpoint, I would love to get that under control -- stopping those who buy alcohol for underage users," she said.

Biskup admits that underage drinking is not a new problem but perhaps it has new elements. She's seen evidence that underage users are drinking more alcohol more often and at a younger age.

She recalled a junior high dance in which a girl showed up heavily intoxicated and later had to be treated for alcohol poisoning.

The trend toward "binge drinking" -- quickly consuming large quantities of alcohol -- also concerns Biskup.

Vanatta said evidence of such activities was found at the most recent drinking party discovered by police. A countertop at the residence was covered with bottles of liquor.

"It's not just beer anymore. Kids are getting their hands on a lot of high alcohol content (drinks)," Biskup said.

Hoberg said the sheriff's office is finding many of the parties are sponsored by parents, some clinging to the excuse that "we took everyone's keys."

"Well, you're breaking the law," Hoberg responds. "You can't buy booze for other people's kids."

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com.

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